Monday, August 22, 2011

Week 11 pt. 2 - The Fast Route from Laos to Cambodia

Thai Border to Cambodia
From Vientiane, we cycled 20km to the Friendship Bridge where we crossed the Mekong into Northeastern Thailand

In short, the border crossing was huge, modern and efficient with lots of other foreigners and bikers. Once we crossed into thailand, we felt like we were in America. the roads were wide and well paved, poeple were driving nice cars and there were no thatched-roof huts. Immediately we realized that if we continued straight to Bangkok, we'd just be following the boring highway all the way. Again we changed our plans and decided to take public transport to Siem Reap so that we could visit Angkor Wat. We figured we would spend as much time visiting the ancient temple grounds as we would cycling through Thailand to Bangkok - and we have a much better time doing the former.

The long boring road in Northeastern Thailand

Needing a place to stay and figure out our onward travel, we rode another 53 km or so to the nearest big city named Udon Thani. At first "Udon" looked like a normal third tier Thai city, but then, out of nowhere, we turn a corner and the street is crawling with older white men! Apparently, about 15 percent of marriages in the northeast are between Thai women and Foreign men - of which many are Americans who were stationed there during the Vietnam war and never left.... Anyway, they have a shopping mall, movie theater and even Dairy Queen, making it one of the fanciest cities we've been to in awhile!

   The next morning we took 2 buses, a total of 9 hours, to Surin, a small city located about 60km from the Cambodian border. We found a hotel near the bus station and began to plan our entry to Cambodia. and route to Siem Reap. We've read that the border crossing we are planning to use sometimes does not offer visa's on arrival and can sometimes require you to have one from an embassy in advance. We also read that there can sometimes be armed conflict in the area due to a disagreement between Cambodia and Thailand about the ownership of certain ancient holy sites. Finally, the area on the Cambodian side of the border used to be the hiding ground for the Khmer Rouge and has been reported by other cyclists as a desolate, unpaved road with no hotels or food for over 160 kms.

   We figure, we'll just get on the bikes and figure it out when we're there. With the name O'Smach, the Cambodian border crossing town will surely be an experience to remember.

Cambodia border crossing

  From Surin the ride to O'Smach, the border town, was about 70km or so. We spent the day cycling there only to be stopped at a road block by Thais soldiers. Apparently fighting had erupted earlier that day with Cambodia regarding the holy sites we talked abotu above. We turned around to find a hotel and try again the next day.

  The town outside the border is a very, very small town - basically the highway with 2 hotels and a giant marketplace just before the border. We asked an older woman about a room and she took us across the street, grabbing a screwdriver and hammer just before. The room was locked on the outside with a padlock and the older woman began using her tools to try and break the lock off! A bit surprised, we said, "Whoa, whoa whoa!" and tried to ask what she was doing. Apparently she didn't have the key to the lock and this was the only way in. Scared of what may or may not be in this locked room, we apologized profusely for the inconvenience and cycled back towards the marketplace to formulate a new plan.

  New Plan #1: try and find a bus/car to take us to another open border crossing 70km to the east.

  Result #1: Failed. We asked around and the best offer we found was 2,000 Baht for a car. Forget it.

  New Plan #2: Hitch a ride with a van/bus already full of people.

We cycled back to the road blockade, where the highway separates to cross the border or drive on to the next crossing. Only this time, which was about 15 minutes after we tried crossing, the blockade was gone. A bit confused we stopped and asked a soldier who said, öh yeah, you can cross the border. What? We looked at each other and decided to cycle the 3 or 5km to the actual crossing.

  New Plan #3: Cross the border and find a bus directly to Siem Reap.

  Result: Failed. 

  Once we got to the actual border, another set of soldiers told us the border was closed. We tried to ask what exactly was the situation, but the language barrier proved troublesome. We were told to wait near the barracks. While standing there, we saw a tanned foreigner with a Hawaiian shirt stroll through across the border. Dan jumped at the chance to speak with a native English speaker and said, ''Excuse me sir." The man kept walking and after a few more "excuse me's" he begrudgingly stopped. He didn't really know what was going on with the border and had only been gambling at the casino that fill O'Smach, the "international" strip of land between Thailand and Cambodia. He had bribed the officials about 1,500 Baht to do so and was heading back home because his wife was worried. He said this happens every couple of months and we should talk directly with the immigration officials.

  Thoroughly confused, a Thai man who spoke English approached us. He made a few phone calls and found out for us that all the borders in this area were now closed, but that this happened quite frequently. He too suggested we speak directly with the immigration officials. Apparently the soldiers may say no, while immigration officials say differently and vice versa. We decided to go see the wizards at immigration.
  New Plan #4: Try cross the border again, for the 4th time.
  Result: Success . . . ?

  Yes, the border was open. Was there fighting? They didn't know. Is it safe to cross? Yes, of course. Is the Cambodian side open? Yes. Do they issue visas on arrival? Of course.

A "fancy" casino in O'Smach

Looking back at Thailand, reconsidering why we left in the first place

  We were stamped out of Thailand and entered no-man's land - the strip of land just before applying for the Cambodian visa. The Cambodian visa officer assured us that everything was fine and getting a visa would be no problem. We were a bit skeptical, so Dan went on a solo mission to find out how much a room at the casino hotels would cost. In the meantime, we asked about a car to Siem Reap, which would take about 4 hours and cost about 2,500 Baht. (about $85 dollars). Not cheap, but it would be fast. The visas would cost us another 1,000 Baht each ($33 dollars), about 400 Baht more than it should be, but we didn't think it was the best time to argue.

  While Dan was in the casino hotel, I started to complete our visa application forms. I heard the visa office window slide open and someone called out, "Are you readyyyyyyyyy?" I said no and the window shut. Two minutes later the window slid open again, with the same call. I responded accordingly. One minute later the window opened, call came accompanied by waving arm, I responded in the negative. Thirty seconds later the window opened and a head appeared saying, "You girl. Come over here. I'm a police officer trying to tell you something. You have to listen." OH SHIT. I nervously walked over and tried to be as calm and polite as possible.

  The officer, who introduced himself as Vy, smiled and only wanted to warn me about over-charging by the taxi drivers, insisting that I was his foreigner and he would take care of me in his Cambodia. Great. I noticed an odor emanating from the small window that smelled a bit like rice wine. I tried to nonchalantly look around the office, but didn't see any evidence. I also noticed that Vy was not in uniform and either had a speech impediment or was wasted. Praying for Dan's speedy return, I stood crouched over making small talk with Vy through the window.

  Dan returned and the casino rooms were about 1,000 - 1,500 Baht. At this rate, we could spend the same and get all the way to Siem Reap. We handed over our passports and waited for our visas. Vy kept assuring us everything was fine and his Cambodia is a great place. Then he invited us into the visa office. Dan and I stopped breathing. This was unheard of in our past border crossing experiences. We were used to casual dress by visa officials, but were never invited anywhere near the other side of the glass. Dan gave me a look and I knew it meant; let's stay calm, sit down and see what happens.

  The office had a small table in front of the window, a filing cabinet, desk with comfy chair and a hammock. Another official came in and started making our visas. Vy assured us that he is the chief and hands the small paper work off to his workers, but it is HIS signature on the visa. He then asked for a slip of paper to write his number on so that if we ever had any problems, we could call him. All he did was sign it, but the way he was talking, this was gold.

  After a bit of small talk, Vy asked if we wanted a beer. He was wasted. We politely declined, but Vy was already sending a young boy to get beers and ice. Luckily we're used to drinking in China and had no problem chugging a class of dark Cambodian beer. It actually tasted quite like cold drinking chocolate and eased our nerves a bit. Next came a delivery of dumplings. We began to loosen up as Vy continued to high-five us, call Dan his brother, refer to us as "his foreigners', and tell us about his wife. Apparently she often yelled at him for getting drunk, so he slept in his office, hence the hammock. Other topics discussed included tattoos, foreigners, and Vy's role as chief.

  With our visas completed and passports stamped, we quickly finished our beers and started trying to leave. Vy insisted we spend one night at his home. We declined and insisted we needed to cycle on. At this point another foreigner appeared on a motor bike and we used him as a diversion. Vy came out with his scooter keys and said the least he could do was escort us to the marketplace. We tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant and started chanting, "Go! Go! Let's go! Come on!" At this point we realized he was pretty tipsy and probably wasn't going to follow us. We felt sorry for the guy who just arrived, but it was every man for himself. Dan managed to say hi and found out he was also from Detroit. I felt bad, but wanted to get the hell out of there.

  Just down the road we began negotiating for a car. In the end we managed to find a guy who would take us and the bikes for 1,500 Baht ($50 dollars). He drove like the wind, dodging dogs, chickens, and potholes allowing us to make it to Siem Reap in 3 hours. Even though we cheated, it was a relief to be far from the border with other tourists. It didn't look like there was much in-between the border and Siem Reap besides vast fields of jungle with a scattering of wooden huts on stilts. We're glad we decided not to read the books about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge before arriving - we probably wouldn't have slept much.

A motorcyclist on the road from O'smach to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng (old Khmer Rouge stronghold)
taken from

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